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If you’re loyal to any one airline, choosing the right credit card can make all the difference when it comes to your travel experience. Some cards will give you access to airport lounges, points that can be used on flights and hotels, companion certificates and more. There’s an airline credit card out there for every type of traveler, and there are a lot of options to sift through.
To help you determine which airline credit card is the right fit for you, we assembled our top picks. Compare cards based on your specific travel needs, learn more about how airline cards work and comb through expert advice.
The midtier United℠ Explorer Card offers great value for its price. Beyond typical airline-specific perks, you'll find accelerated rewards on restaurant purchases and hotel stays, as well as a credit for your Global Entry or TSA PreCheck application fee.
Signup bonus. Earn 40,000 bonus miles after you make $2,000 in purchases with your card within the first 3 months of account opening.
Rewards. Earn 2x miles on United purchases, eligible hotel stays and restaurant spending. Earn 1x miles on all other purchases.
Global Entry or TSA PreCheck fee credit. Get up to $100 credit once every for years to cover for your Global Entry or TSA PreCheck application fee.
Earning restrictions. You may not earn your 2x miles when you purchase tickets through third party flights.
$0 intro annual fee for the first year ($95 thereafter)
16.49% to 23.49% variable
Foreign transaction fee
40,000 miles after spending $2,000 in the first 3 months
2x miles at restaurants, hotels and United and 1x miles on all other purchases
This is the highest-priced Southwest credit card, but you can offset the annual fee with the yearly $75 travel credit and the 7,500 anniversary points you get each year (valued around $75). You can also find great value from the priority boarding and the generous welcome offer.
Signup bonus. Earn 40,000 points after you make $1,000 in purchases with your card within the first 3 months of account opening.
Rewards. Earn 2x points on Southwest Airlines purchases and spending with hotel and car rental partners. Earn 1x points on all other purchases.
Southwest Airlines perks. Get four Upgraded Boarding passes each year, $75 annual travel credit and 7,500 bonus Southwest points each card anniversary.
Annual fee. You'll pay $149 annually to use this card.
15.99% to 22.99% variable
Foreign transaction fee
40,000 points after spending $1,000 in the first 3 months
2x points on Southwest and Rapid Rewards hotel and car rentals and 1x points on all other purchases
While reactions to the Chase Sapphire Reserve®'s annual-fee increase has been mixed, the card still boasts an impressive and flexible annual travel credit.
Signup bonus. Earn 50,000 bonus points when you spend $4,000 in your first 3 months of card membership. This is worth $750 if you redeem through the Chase Ultimate Rewards travel portal.
Earn rewards points. Earn 3x points on travel and dining at restaurants worldwide and 1x points on all other purchases. The 3x points can be worth 4.5% back if redeemed on travel purchases through the Chase Ultimate Rewards. You also earn 10x points on Lyft purchases until March 2022. This can be worth up to 15% back in travel purchases via the Chase Ultimate Rewards portal.
Annual travel credit. Get $300 in statement credit as reimbursement for your travel purchases every year on your card account anniversary.
Annual fee. Awesome perks come with a high annual fee. You'll pay $550 annual fee for the card.
16.99% to 23.99% variable
Foreign transaction fee
50,000 points after spending $4,000 in the first 3 months
10x points on Lyft rides, 3x points on dining and travel after earning your $300 travel credit and 1x points on all other purchases
Best for American Airlines
Citi® / AAdvantage® Platinum Select® World Elite™ Mastercard®
The midtier AAdvantage card offers 2x miles on American Airlines purchases and on restaurant and gas station spending. You'll get access to useful American Airlines perks, as well as flight discounts after meeting annual spend requirements and renewing your card.
Signup bonus. Earn 50,000 American Airlines AAdvantage bonus miles after you make $2,500 in purchases within the first 3 months of account opening.
Rewards. Earn 2x miles on eligible American Airlines purchases, on gas station and restaurant purchases. Earn 1x miles on all other purchases.
American Airlines perks. Get first checked bag free and preferred boarding on American Airlines itineraries, plus 25% savings on eligible in-flight food and beverage purchases, and a $125 flight discount when you spend $20,000 or more in a cardmembership year.
Taxes and fees. You're on the hook for taxes and fees for flights you book using bonus miles.
$0 intro annual fee for the first year ($99 thereafter)
15.99% to 24.99% variable
Foreign transaction fee
50,000 miles after spending $2,500 in the first 3 months
2x miles on eligible American Airlines purchases, at gas stations and restaurants and 1x miles on all other purchases
The Platinum Card® from American Express has a steep $550 annual fee, but it offers a stellar 5x points on flights as well as prepaid hotels you book through Amex Travel. It also comes with premium benefits such as access to the Global Lounge Collection, an annual airline fee credit and gold status in the Marriott and Hilton loyalty programs.
Membership reward points. Earn 5x points on flights and prepaid hotels booked directly through Amex Travel. You can use your points toward gift cards, travel rewards, statement credit and more. If you redeem these points for the highest valued rewards, you'll get 5% back. On all other eligible purchases, you'll earn 1x points.
Welcome offer. Get 60,000 membership rewards points after you spend $5,000 on purchases in the first 3 months of card membership. That's up to $1,200 worth of rewards when transferred to travel partners.
Airline fee credit. Select a qualifying airline and receive a $200 airline fee credit each year to cover incidental charges, such as checked bags or in-flight purchases.
Annual fee. Expect to pay $550 for the card. This may seem like a lot, but if you travel often, you can easily offset the fee.
Foreign transaction fee
60,000 points after spending $5,000 in your first 3 months
5x points on directly-booked flights or on flights and hotels on Amex Travel. 1x points on all other purchases
This card has a higher annual fee after its January 2020 revamp, but it's become more valuable. On top of the new Global Entry/TSA PreCheck application fee credit, it offers increased rewards on Delta purchases and accelerated rewards at hotels, restaurants and US supermarkets.
Check your first bag for free
Strong welcome offer
15.74% to 24.74% variable
Foreign transaction fee
40,000 miles and 5,000 MQMs after spending $2,000 in the first 3 months plus $100 after making a Delta purchase in the first 3 months
3x miles on Delta and direct hotel purchases, 2x miles at restaurants and US supermarkets and 1x miles for all other purchases
Amex increased this card's annual fee in January 2020, but it's added attractive perks for the price. A highlight is complimentary access to The Centurion Lounges with an eligible Delta flight, and you'll still get complimentary access to Delta Sky Club lounges.
Welcome offer. Earn 40,000 bonus miles and 10,000 Medallion Qualification Miles (MQMs) after you make $3,000 in eligible purchases with your card within the first 3 months of account opening.
Rewards. Earn 3x miles on Delta purchases and 1x miles on other eligible purchases.
Airport lounge access. Get complimentary access to all Delta Sky Clubs when flying with Delta, which otherwise costs $59 for a single visit. If you visit Delta Sky Clubs once a month, that's $708 savings per year. Also, you get access to The Centurion® Lounge when you book your Delta flight with your card.
Annual fee. You'll pay $550 annually to use this card.
15.74% to 24.74% variable
Foreign transaction fee
40,000 miles and 10,000 MQMs after spending $3,000 in the first 3 months
3x miles on direct Delta purchases and 1x miles on all other purchases
We looked at a variety of factors consumers might consider when selecting an airline rewards credit card, including the particular airline, earning rates, possible rewards, redemption values and additional perks or benefits associated with traveling. Those cards that stood out above the rest in a particular category, or served a specific niche, were chosen for our list.
What’s changed in 2020
This year is notable for annual-fee increases to multiple airline cards. While the Chase Sapphire Reserve® might not offer enough perks to match its new annual fee, the revamped Delta cards offer clearer value to justify their higher prices.
Why trust us? We spend hundreds of hours each week reading and writing about the latest in credit card news. We know whether a card is a must have, great for a specific kind of consumer or one that just doesn’t make the cut. It’s not always easy to pick the right card – especially a type as varied as airline cards – so want to share our knowledge and help consumers find the best card for their needs. Our strict editorial guidelines ensure that our content is unbiased, accurate and best serves the needs of the reader.
Compare cards by airline
Compare airline credit cards
Many airlines offer cobranded credit cards with airline-specific perks. If you fly with different carriers, you might like a general travel card instead.
An airline credit card typically offers rewards for airline purchases, usually in the form of airline miles. You can redeem these miles on flights or other related purchases, such as seat upgrades.
Airline cards tend to come in two varieties: cobranded cards that are associated with a specific airline, and general airline cards. A cobranded card usually offers more perks or earning potential for that specific airline, which can play a significant role in how you pick an airline card.
1. Compare & apply for a card
Look at cobranded and general airline cards that fit your airline preferences and apply like normal.
2. Earn miles
Once you receive your card, use it on categories that earn you the most miles. Cobranded cards tend to reward the most miles for purchases made with that specific airline.
3. Redeem miles
Once you’ve earned enough miles for a flight, you can book one through your credit card account or the frequent flyer program associated with your credit card.
How to compare airline credit cards
Aside from the card’s APR, here are a few important features to compare when selecting an airline credit card:
If you prefer flying a certain airline, look for a cobranded card that offers rewards specific to that company. Otherwise, a general travel card can help you earn on all airlines.
Airline credit cards often feature annual fees to offset the various perks they offer.
Many airline cards offer a mileage signup bonus when you spend within the set requirements. This bonus can easily pay for a roundtrip flight, depending on your destination and class.
Cobranded cards tend to earn the most miles on purchases associated with that airline. If you plan on using your card for day-to-day purchases, consider a card that earns miles on those purchases.
Both types of travel cards can offer a variety of perks, including free breakfast, upgraded rooms, statement credits or concierge service access.
Foreign transaction fees
Many airline cards forgo foreign transaction fees, though that’s not a guarantee. Make sure to check if you plan on using your card abroad.
When is an airline credit card worth it?
An airline credit card isn’t worth it for every traveler. However, you might find them worth a spot in your pocket for a few reasons:
You favor a specific airline. If you prefer a specific airline over others, you might be an ideal candidate for a cobranded airline card. These cards tend to have more generous perks and rewards than general airline cards.
You travel heavy. If you’re always checking bags when you fly, an airline credit card can save you hundreds of dollars over the year.
You don’t want other rewards. An airline credit card is a better pick than a general travel card if you plan on only reinvesting your rewards back into travel.
You’re interested in elite status. Some airline credit cards can help you reach the next tier of an airline’s elite program faster.
You want a companion pass. Many of the best airline cards available offer companion passes, either as a welcome offer or on each card anniversary. These passes are worth hundreds of dollars.
You regularly use the card. A card with all manner of perks isn’t worth it if you don’t use that card on a regular basis – especially if the card requires an annual fee.
If one or more of these reasons don’t line up with your travel or spending preferences, you might consider searching for a general travel credit card instead.
You asked, we listened: Top 5 common questions
With so many airline credit cards to choose from, it’s only natural to have some questions. Here are the 5 most common questions we receive on the subject.
How much are credit card airline miles worth? The ultimate value of an airline mile can vary greatly depending on the specific loyalty program and how you redeem your miles.
Can I get an airline credit card with bad credit? Most airline credit cards require a good or better credit score. However, you can still use another type of credit card for your airline purchases.
What kinds of airline cards are there? Airline credit cards come in two varieties: cobranded, which are released under the umbrella of a specific airline, and general, which can be used on any airline.
Do I need a frequent flyer number to use an airline card? Only if you’re using a cobranded credit card. These cards need to be linked to your frequent flyer number to generate miles and provide rewards.
What’s the difference between airline credit cards and travel credit cards? Airline credit cards generate miles and offer rewards specifically for flights. Travel credit cards offer general “points” that can be used on airlines as well as other travel options, such as hotels and cruises.
Read more about airline credit cards
Sarah Barness Credit Cards Editor
Hi, I’m Sarah! Since I often visit family that lives 3,000 miles away, having a great airline card in my wallet is a must. I look for cards without annual fees and simple rewards structures to earn points for my airline of choice. I love comparing airline cards to find the best options. Here are some articles that might answer the questions you have.
How are the number of miles required for a flight determined?
Frequent flier miles are a loyalty program perk offered by many airlines to influence a consumer’s decision to fly a particular airline over another so that they can accumulate enough points/miles to be awarded a free seat upgrade, free domestic flight or free international flight. The number of miles awarded for these perks is based on the average cost to the airline to deliver customers from point A to point B, as well as the perceived value of these perks to the average customer.
Airlines also sell the ability to accumulate miles to partner companies to award to their customer base as well. Typically, airlines will award free domestic tickets to passengers after accumulating approximately 15,000 airline miles and free international tickets to passengers after accumulating 40,000 airline miles.
Perceived value for these items typically runs between approximately 2.3 cents per mile for domestic flights and 3.8 cents per mile for international flights. However, what you get for these perks normally equates to 1 cents per mile for domestic flights and 2 cents per mile for international flights. So the airlines are still making money off these “perks.”
Eric Van Steenburg
Ph.D., Assistant Professor of Marketing
Montana State University
What makes for a good rewards program?
One should consider it from both the consumers’ and the brands’ perspectives.
From the brands’ perspective, the most important element in co-branding is that it must be of equal value to each participant. That is, an airline and a credit card company or bank must derive equal benefits from the relationship. For airline credit cards, the card supplier benefits from income it receives in the form of service charges levied on the vendor where the consumer uses the credit card, interest assessments added to a statement when the user doesn’t pay the card in full each month, as well as fees it charges to the consumer to use the card on an annual basis. For the airlines, they benefit from the fact that most people will purchase an additional ticket or tickets when they travel, thus increasing the carrier’s income for the flight, as well as fees for items such as extra bags being checked or seat upgrades that traveler chooses.
Mark S. Rosenbaum
Professor and Department Chair
University of South Carolina
What is the best way to redeem credit card miles?
Customers should redeem miles when doing so will help them realize value. For example, let’s say that a customer would like to travel to Mexico and is uneasy about spending money on a hotel room. If using miles will change a customer’s view of value to the extent that the purchase has more benefits than costs, then customers should redeem miles. Don’t use miles for routine purchases which already are seen in a favorable light, rather, use miles for purchases that need a dose of extra value.
Professor of Marketing at the Kania School of Management
University of Scranton
When is an airline credit card worth it? The travel card is only worth if the benefits exceed the costs of having one. If one ends up paying a high yearly annual fee (over $100) or high interest rates on balances, it is worth considering whether the annual benefits exceed the cost of having the card. Customers should in advance whether it is easy to redeem the rewards (fewer blackout dates and restrictions on destinations).
If one travels often, and usually with the same airline, and like the perks of checking free bags, priority boarding or free nights at a hotel, an airline card issued by a specific brand may be the better option. On the other hand, if someone values generic rewards, and don’t like to be tied to specific airlines, hotel chains or car rental agencies, a general travel rewards card may be the better alternative.
Ryan S. Eanes
Ph.D., PRC – Assistant Professor
Is it worth signing up for an airline credit card on the plane, or are you better off waiting for another time? Airline passengers are already at something of a loss when it comes to things to occupy their attention, and the airlines know this… I would not recommend applying for an airline card “in flight” to the casual air traveler who doesn’t fly more than a couple of times a year–if you’re interested in a “miles” card, I strongly suggest doing your homework and searching for an offer when you have time to compare the many available options.
PhD Interim Dean
Southern Illinois University Edwardsville
How should a consumer choose between cards offering points, miles, or cashback? Choosing wisely between cards with different kinds of rewards is difficult to do unless a consumer thoroughly understands their own spending patterns. It is easier than ever for people to track and analyze their expenses through free or low-cost apps. Once a consumer understands their spending and has considered any changes they want to make, they are in a much better position to choose a card that will be maximally rewarding.
Professor Emeritus of Marketing
Bauer College of Business, University of Houston
How can consumers get the most value when redeeming credit card points or miles? Consumers should carefully consider which card offers most of what they value most for the long term. Setting goals for valued rewards that may take a while to earn (e.g., round trip business class to an international destination) helps. Understanding when and how an airline of choice offers lower reward thresholds can result in valued rewards for fewer points. For example, United has an infrequently used classification that makes business class available for a fraction of the usual number of miles, but you need to be either lucky or smart to find a flight on which it’s available, and you need to plan and do your search well ahead of your travel time.
If you want to earn flexible points or miles on flights, consider a general travel credit card. If you’re loyal to a certain airline, you might like a cobranded card.
Our team evaluates credit cards to determine their value against similar cards on the market.
We rank card types — travel, cash back, business — on a set of factors that are most relevant to that type of card. We create these rankings to help you narrow down a credit card that best suits your spending and budget.
Kevin Joey Chen is a credit cards writer whose work and analysis have appeared on CNN, U.S. News & World Report, The Dallas Morning News, Lifehacker and CreditCards.com. He's passionate about helping you get your finances in order and expertly navigate the cutting-edge financial tools available -- including credit cards, apps and budgeting software.
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